“They fell as martyrs”: in Iraq, the IS continues to kill civilians

“My son, my grandson and my cousins ​​fell as martyrs”: death entered Jabbar Alwan’s home one evening in December. His town in central Iraq has been the target of jihadists who continue to kill police, soldiers and civilians.

With its chickens, its fields and its backfiring vans, the village of Albou Bali exudes peace. “There are farmers, doctors, employees”, explains Sheikh Khales Rachid, customary chief of this town of 5,000 inhabitants planted 70 km north of Baghdad.

But the rural idyll was shattered in mid-December, when a commando from the Islamic State (IS) group landed in the village.

Because five years after the government declared its military “victory” over this extremist group, Iraq may no longer experience large-scale attacks and bombings, but IS fighters continue to sporadically kill forces security and civilians.

Jabbar Alwan in the village of Albou Bali, in central Iraq, on January 12, 2023 (AFP – AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

The commando “arrived around 8:15 p.m., shooting blindly. Martyrs fell,” says Abbas Mazhar Hussein, 34, a resident.

Assessment of the attack: eight dead and six injured, only civilians, including the son, grandson and two cousins ​​of Jabbar Alwan who lives on a farm outside the village. “It’s very painful. We didn’t expect this,” said the old man, his eyes clouding with tears behind his glasses.

– Fear of reprisals –

His neighbor Ali Menouar, in his forties, still bears the scars of the neck attack: two scars. “I heard shots, I went out and I saw my nephew lying on the ground,” he says.

Sheikh Khales Rachid, customary chief of Albou Bali, in central Iraq, on January 12, 2023 (AFP - AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)
Sheikh Khales Rachid, customary chief of Albou Bali, in central Iraq, on January 12, 2023 (AFP – AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

As Ali Menouar closed his gate to protect himself, IS snipers fired. The bullets grazed him in the neck. On its cinderblock wall, the shots dug holes the size of a fist.

After perpetrating this bloodbath, the commando was able to flee without being worried.

But why attack civilians?

Like the majority of Iraqis, the inhabitants of Albou Bali are Shiites, a branch of Islam that Sunni extremists such as IS consider “infidel”. It is also by using this extremely pejorative term that IS claimed responsibility for the attack.

However in their press release broadcast on Telegram, the jihadists say they have targeted “unbeliever militiamen”, thereby designating the Hachd al-Chaabi, former pro-Iran paramilitaries now integrated into the regular troops.

The attack, due to the high number of civilian casualties, sent shockwaves through an Iraq still recovering from four decades of conflict. Prime Minister Mohamed Chia al-Soudani “called me and begged me to prevent any violent response”, assures Sheikh Khales Rachid.

Clearly: Baghdad feared that the inhabitants — Shiites — of the village would launch reprisals in certain surrounding Sunni towns, accusing them of tolerating the presence of members of the IS.

“The terrorists hide in the countryside and continue to attack sporadically,” said an Iraqi police colonel who does not wish to be identified.

– “Gangsters” –

The town of Al-Khalis on which Albou Bali is located is a “transit” zone for jihadists, explains Mayor Uday al-Khadran. His province of Diyala and the neighboring province of Salaheddine see the passage of jihadists towards the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan “which is not secure”, according to him.

According to a UN report released in the summer of 2022, the jihadist organization retains “between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, concentrated in rural areas”.

“Today, Daesh (acronym for IS in Arabic, editor’s note) does not carry out military operations, it no longer seizes territory”, assures Uday al-Khadran, qualifying the acts of the jihadists as “gangster operations “.

Jabbar Alwan in the village of Albou Bali, in central Iraq, on January 12, 2023 (AFP - AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)
Jabbar Alwan in the village of Albou Bali, in central Iraq, on January 12, 2023 (AFP – AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

According to him, the attack against Albou Bali was made possible because the security forces are not numerous enough.

Since then, nearly 200 men – army, police and Hashd al-Chaabi combined – have arrived as reinforcements and surveillance cameras have been installed in Albou Bali, according to the police colonel.

But Jabbar Alwan said he expected “another incident”. “It wasn’t the last,” he sighs.

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